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2016 Year In Review (Part 2)

Original Content
7
By David Collum
Friday, December 23rd, 2016

2016 Year In Review (Part 2)

Original Content
By David Collum on
Friday, December 23rd, 2016
7

If you've not yet read Part 1, click here to do so. The whole enchilada can be downloaded as a single PDF here or viewed in parts via the hot-linked contents as follows:

Contents

Part 1

Part 2

Putin and Russia

“Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

~William Perry, former secretary of defense

“You people . . . do not feel a sense of the impending danger. This is what worries me. How do you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction? . . . I don’t know how to get through to you anymore.”

~Vladimir Putin

Russia is the huge topic ignored by most. A potential Russian/American conflict presents significant risk of a New Cold War and potentially a hot war. This markedly shaped my view of the U.S. elections, with eye toward Russian-American relations under Clinton and Trump. I viewed Trump’s agnosticism toward Putin—what the left might call cozying up to him—as a strong positive. When the Cold War archives were pried open after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we found that Russia was perennially responding to us, not provoking.319 History may be repeating. A media that is bought and paid for by the “deep state” is telling us the Ruskies are bad. I am deeply troubled by the relentless hawkish rhetoric coming from Washington.

Pat Buchanan describes Putin as “a nationalist who looks out for Russia first.”320 Putin also gets along with Netanyahu,321 which flies in the face of rhetoric about Putin’s pro-Arab stances. When asked by Fareed Zakaria whether there would be another cold war, Putin destroyed him in a must-watch video.322 A Putin interview with a panel of journalists left me similarly impressed that he understands risks in the Middle East that the American public hasn’t a clue about.323 George Friedman, however, thinks Putin has serious internal political problems:324 “I suspect that Putin will survive until the end of his elected term. But fear makes politics unpredictable, and geopolitical analysis doesn’t work on the thinking of worried men drinking vodka to calm their nerves.”

“We never poke our noses into others’ affairs, and we really don’t like it when people try to poke their nose into ours. The Americans need to get to the bottom of what these e-mails are themselves and find out what it’s all about.”

~Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman

We’ll probably never know what role Russian hackers played this year, but it is interesting that in midsummer they were rumored to have hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC), 525 which promptly denied it. The eventual onslaught of WikiLeaks forced a change in tactics from denial to hang everything on Putin and his love child, Donald Trump.326 Stephen Cohen, Russian studies expert at Princeton, calls bullshit on CNN’s assertions that Russian hacking is about Putin wanting to start a new cold war in cahoots with Trump. I’m inclined to side with anybody who calls CNN a shill.

Hurling flaming balls of rhetoric at the Russians is dangerous, and the election didn’t help. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, was “somewhat taken aback by the hyperventilation” on the hacks and wasn’t even convinced the hackers were Russian.327 Impartial observers argued that Crimea became a political football for the Clintons with a U.S.-initiated overthrow of a democratically elected president in 2014.1 Crimean citizens voted to legally reunite with Russia on March 18.328

“We know perfectly well that candidates in the heat of a pre-election struggle say one thing, but that later, when under the weight of responsibility, their rhetoric becomes more balanced.”

~Dmitry Peskov

“[G]rave accusations [are] . . . fabricated by those who are now serving an obvious political order in Washington, continuing to whip up unprecedented anti-Russian hysteria. . . . Unfortunately, we see less and less common sense in the actions of Washington and Paris.”

~Sergei Ryabkov, Russian deputy foreign minister, on hacking

Evidence of the New Cold War is everywhere. The news network RT got its accounts blocked in the UK,329 causing an RT spokesperson to declare on Twitter, “Long live freedom of speech!” The hot war is heating up, too. Russian jets have been buzzing U.S. naval ships.330 The U.S. and NATO conducted the “largest war games in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War” that included 31,000 troops (lots of Americans) and thousands of combat vehicles from 24 nations.331 Meanwhile, China and Russia are doing joint military exercises in the South China Sea.332

“We’re not concerned about the safety of U.S. vessels in the region as long as interactions with the Chinese remain safe and professional, which has been the case in most cases.”

~Josh Earnest, White House spokesman

We haven’t exactly been voices of reason. A cease-fire in Syria was broken by U.S. bombing, prompting Russia to call for a UN Security Council meeting.333 Obama considered an unprecedented cyberattack against Russia in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election.334 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia and Syria should face a war crimes investigation for their attacks on Syrian civilians.335 The hypocrisy is killing me (and them). There is even evidence that the Germans are preparing to go to war against Russia.336 Alexei Pushkov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma, tweeted “The decision of the German government declaring Russia to be an enemy shows Merkel’s subservience to the Obama administration.”337 Is the next war going to be brought to you on Twitter?

As I am putting this annual survey to bed, I am hearing shrill screams about all of our intelligence agencies now agreeing that the Russian hackers are a problem. I don’t believe them. It’s not about faith in the Russians but a lack of faith in U.S. propaganda with a decidedly domestic agenda.

South America

“Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world.”

~Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn), leader of Britain’s Labor Party on 5/3/13

[email protected] Thanks to Chavez we don’t have electricity, water, food, even toilet paper.

Guillermo Amador (@modulor)

What a difference three years and a brain stem make. Let’s do a quick trip south of the border to remind us we face first-world problems. Venezuela is in total collapse, suffering hyperinflation at 500% per annum and projected by the IMF to hit 1600% next year.338 Like clockwork (orange), there were food shortages (starvation) and even condom shortages (insert tasteless joke here.) People get grumpy when pushed to the edge; sexual deprivation and unwanted kids are past the edge. A Venezuelan mob beat and burned a $5 thief to death . . . although he might not have actually stolen anything.339 Venezuelan clocks were moved forward by 30 minutes to save power and alleviate an electricity crisis.340 That’s the solution? Daylight savings time? Ya also gotta wonder what role John Perkins-like jackals played in this one.

Argentina is the bond fiasco capital of the world. Singer and company are still trying to get paid for their Argentinian bonds,341 which are still being ring-fenced by whomever is tasked with ring fencing bonds. Meanwhile, a new Argentine bond issuance was announced.342 Private buyers should be subjected to mandatory head CT scans and, if necessary, euthanasia. (Bankers are exempted because they always get bailed out.) The demand for the $15 billion offering was strong. What is that definition of insanity again about repeating something over and over? Never mind.

Brazil has been hobbled by the energy crisis. Petrobras dropped 11,700 workers.343 Being South American, they are, almost by definition, hobbled by debt, too. As Bill Gross said, “No country over time can issue debt at 6–7% real interest rates with negative growth. It is a death sentence.” Brazil auto sales plummeted 31% in January. Another BRIC added to the Global Wall of Worry. And, of course, the Zika virus showed up. The effects on fetuses are horrendous, reminding me of the 1932 movie Freaks. This one is moving around the globe. I sweated bullets over Ebola, only to find out the secret is hydration and bed rest. I’ll do a wait-and-see.

Of course, Brazil was the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Any economist knows how much wealth is created for the host country: none. They are total money pits. I return to them below.

China

“We are in a down cycle that will end with crisis and calamity. China in today’s cycle is what U.S. housing was during the financial crisis in 2008.”

~Felix Zulauf, president of Zulauf Asset Management

China has enjoyed a half century of explosive growth, not unlike the U.S. from 1870–1930 and Japan from 1945–1989, but now it suffers from Osgood–Schlatter disease—its joints are beginning to ache—and it seems unlikely to be only economic growing pains. China’s imports have been dropping for 18 months.344 Its exports are dropping double digits as the debt-laden, stagnating global economy ceases to be a consumer of any resort. Richard Duncan provides stunning stats on China’s impending hard landing.345 Reduced consumption is crushing Ferrari sales (and they have leaves in their swimming pools). China is planning for 1.8 million unemployed workers, but that’s only 0.2% of the population. A serious downturn would involve many more. Its current economic model of development for the sake of employment—Potemkin Villages—is burning through its foreign reserves. China’s credit-fueled expansion was exemplified by a 27-story high-rise building completed in 2015 and demolished in 2016 because it was “left unused for too long.”346 Bastiat’s broken-window fallacy has been operating on a grand scale.

“We are at the atrophy level in China.”

~Kyle Bass, Hayman Capital

Of course, credit-based booms stress and eventually break banking systems, and it’s always entertaining to get Kyle Bass’s take on disasters before they occur. Kyle says the $3 trillion corporate bond market is “freezing up. . . . [W]e’re starting to see the beginning of the Chinese machine literally break down.He estimates that a 10% loss in bank assets would cost China $3.5 trillion.347 Some fund managers predict a $500 billion bank bailout. Bass sees $10 trillion (and dead people). Money has been steadily laundered out of China. The China Banking Regulatory Commission is trying not to cut off troubled companies by “evergreening” bad loans—extending their duration to infinity, which is a long time.

“If I don’t issue more loans, then my salary isn’t enough to repay the mortgage and car loan. It’s not difficult to issue more loans, but lets say in a year’s time when the loan is due, if the borrower defaults, then I won’t just see a pay cut, I’ll be fired and still be responsible for loan recovery.”

~Chinese loan officer

Plunging commodity prices and highly levered corporations struggling to make interest payments are causing business failures and defaults.348 Nonperforming loans are up to 20%.349 Evergreening doesn’t stop this part. The housing bubble finally popped. China forex reserves (as noted last year) are depleting unsustainably.350 So much for forex superpower status. Contrary to popular opinion, high forex reserves correlate with crisis (U.S. in 1929 and Japan 1989). Additional risks include debt equaling 300% of GDP.351 Everything is big in China.

Equities (the SSE) are 40% off all-time highs aided by a feeble dead panda bounce. Its draconian 2015 measures—arresting sellers to arrest the selling—have worked for now,352 but bodies are starting to surface. A Madoff-like fraud in China caused angst.353 A 7% 30-minute flash crash-ette was saved by state-sponsored buyers. The sell-off was blamed on 胖手指, which loosely translates “fat fingers.”354 Andy Xie, fired from Morgan Stanley for his candor,355 sees a ’29-style crash in China’s future:356 “The government is allowing speculation by providing cheap financing . . . terrified of a crash. So it keeps pumping cash into the economy. It is difficult to see how China can avoid a crisis.” It took 50 years, but another emerging market has become an emergent market.

Geopolitical risks have been growing for years. China dumped low-cost steel, killing global steel industries.357 India cranked up production to protect debt-laden domestic steelmakers.358 The U.S. imposed a 256% tariff on Chinese steel imports, 522% on cold-rolled steel used in automobiles.359 Let the trade wars begin, but they often mutate into conventional wars. China is rumored to have hacked the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: “Nothin’ here.”360 Team Obama had a diplomatic bar fight with Chinese officials on the tarmac in China. Team Obama got dissed, big time.361 Obama was then called a “son of a bitch” by the president of the Philippines362 and decided to grab his ball(s) and come home a little early.

I wish I understood “special drawing rights.” They appear to be supranational fiat currencies that are every bit as dubious as other fiat currencies, yet they pose risk to the dollar’s reserve currency status. China authorized a lender to issue a pile of these puppies. “Major financial institutions and other international institutions also intend to issue SDR-denominated bonds on the Chinese inter-bank market.” Why is this important? Simple: we bomb countries that try to dethrone King Dollar.

And if all that weren’t enough, there are potential range wars ahead owing to water rights.363 Asia’s 10 major rivers provide water to more than a fifth of the world’s population. The lack of clear rules to regulate shared water sources could cause problems.

Japan

“When central banks have bought up all the world’s stocks and bonds, and transferred all the wealth into the pockets of the 1%, the confusion will finally end.”

~Zero Hedge

Japan is, for the second year in a row, not that interesting. Of course, I should care. As Bill Gross says, Japan is “the world’s largest aging demographic petri dish,” and demographics will drive markets and economies in coming decades. Japan’s labor participation rate is dropping just like ours but is more centered on an aging population.264 According to Tim Price, “Japan has been the dress rehearsal; the rest of the world will be the main event.” Japan is also at the vanguard of monetary policy, intervening in virtually all markets at unimaginable levels.

“Bank of Japan Risk: Running Out of Bonds to Buy”

~Wall Street Journal headline

BoJ redirected its focus from expanding the money supply to controlling interest rates, which smacks of desperation to some (and a crock to others). The effects of its interventions are breathtaking. The yields of 40-year government bonds reached 0.3% last I looked, and the 10-year bond went negative. BoJ underwrote government bonds and converted them into zero-coupon perpetual bonds in the secondary market.365 These are bonds that pay nothing and last forever. Gillian Tett reminded us that Japan tried this crap in the ‘30s. How’d that work out? Oh, right. The bear market ended badly in 1945.

There is hope. A Bloomberg headline suggested that the rates were “nearing levels too low for BoJ comfort.” Nobody told the head of BoJ, apparently:

“[A] reduction in the level of monetary policy accommodation . . . will not be considered. There aren’t any such things as a quantitative limit or anything, any numbers we can’t overcome.”

~Hiroki Kuroda, governor and head monopsonist at the Bank of Japan

Well what the hell are they gonna buy, ETFs? Exactly. Japan’s $1.1 trillion government pension fund is being used to push the Nikkei higher.366

“BoJ is nationalizing the stock market.”

~Nicholas Smith, CLSA’s Japan strategist

“The BoJ is basically declaring that Japan will need to fix its long-term problems by 2018, or risk becoming a failed nation.”

~Takuji Okubo, chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors

Yasuhide Yajima, chief economist at NLI Research Institute, suggests even greater boldness: “What’s certain is that Kuroda has to do something extreme or unthinkable if he wants to surprise.”367 Apparently, the crap they’ve been doing isn’t officially unthinkable or extreme. Ya had me at negative rates.

What does any of this have to do with rejuvenating an economy, and how is it working? Nothing and not well. Japan has been stagnant for 25 years and counting (Figure 19). Can you imagine your portfolio dropping for 25 years? Occasionally the Nikkei seems to show a pulse—the corpse twitches a bit—but then it falls back. I was watching the 15K line in the sand this year, waiting for it to break. Miraculously, the Wall of Money appeared at 15K to bump it back up. Go figure. It’s time to get bold, Kuroda-san. Do something really extreme.

Figure 19. Nikkei.

A little bookkeeping is in order before leaving the island. Fukushima is still a disaster. Mutations are starting to appear in flora and fauna.368 Massive storage tanks continue to be filled. It turns out the tanks were not up to spec to store radioactive water, so they’re decaying and leaking.369 Attempts to form an ice dam failed.370 Seemed harebrained anyway. The Tokyo aquifer is still at risk. The day I am typing this rough draft, the Ring of Fire is alive with earthquakes. Sounds like a sci-fi thriller to me. Armageddon 2.0.

Middle East

“I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price was worth it.”

~Madeleine Albright in 1996 on 500,000 dead children in the Iraq War371

It is possible that the authorities and private-sector intelligence gurus like George Friedman understand the Middle East. One Sunday morning I got an hour-long tutorial from Nassim Taleb. He seemed to understand it, but it flew right over my head like a drone. I asked a former Trident submarine captain with time in the Pentagon what was behind our Syrian policy, and he professed “not a clue.” Eight years ago, we elected a liberal democrat who won a Nobel Peace Prize prenatally. I was sure he would have a more humble Middle East policy than Bush Jr., but then he bombed the hell out of half the countries in the Middle East and caused what I think will prove to be a historically important refugee crisis in Europe. (Bombings, by the way, are now euphemistically called “kinetic scenarios.”) Maybe our current president will unify the whole region and call it Trumpistan. I just hope he lays low.

“We never saw a secular Arab regime that we didn’t want to overthrow.”

~Peter Ford, UK ambassador in Syria, 2003–2006

One could argue that the Middle East and the West will never share common values. At great risk of becoming a shot messenger, I offer the results of a global Pew Foundation poll—the gold standard of polls:372

Figure 20. Pew Foundation poll.

Those numbers prompted Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, to tweet, “Islam has a problem.” The King of Jordan on 60 Minutes assured us that only 2% of the world’s Muslims are radical jihadists. Two percent of 1.8 billion is 36 million. I feel much better now. Leaving aside whose worldview is right, maybe we should stay in our respective regions until we find a little more common ground. That means we must leave them alone to fight among themselves. A study at Brown University (for what it’s worth) claims that our Middle East adventures since 9/11 have cost us $5 trillion,373 which accounts for a large percentage of our national debt accrued over that same period. The indirect costs are incalculable. Millions have died either directly or owing to the unrest and instability. I am compelled to look at a few low-water marks in this gigantic real and metaphorical desert.

“For us to control all the air space in Syria would require for us to go to war against Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not gonna make.”

~General Joseph Dunford, testifying to the Senate

I’ve written before about our 10-year effort to overthrow Assad.374 We have failed, producing a complete wasteland. Footage of Damascus and Aleppo (or, as Gary Johnson calls it, Whatsaleppo) shows mind-boggling carnage.375 Martha Raddatz, in a Republican presidential debate, had the temerity to ask, “What if Aleppo falls?” Martha: it’s a total pile of rubble; it’s gone (Figure 21). The absurdity of our foreign policy is exemplified by reports that “CIA-armed militias are shooting at Pentagon-armed ones in Syria.”376 Fifty State Department officials urged military strikes against Assad for persistent cease-fire violations.377 We are going to bomb them because we are in their country bombing them and they are fighting back? We should never forget, however, the massive casualties we’ve taken at the hands of the Syrians. Which ones? I’m still working on that.

Figure 21. Aleppo, Syria.

“It’s a bad strategy, it’s the wrong strategy, and maybe I would tell the president that he would be better served to find somebody who believes in it, whoever that idiot may be.”

~General Anthony Zinni and former head of U.S. Central Command on Obama’s ISIS policy

Turkey is a key borderland, the gateway between Europe and the Middle East. It got a little more exciting when the populace rose up against bad-boy Prime Minister Erdogan in a palace coup. But soon it started smelling of the CIA, and the Turkey coop quickly became the Bay of Goats. Erdogan was never at risk; he used this false flag (or at least pathetic effort)378 to scrub out the riffraff in his country (teachers).379 The tally could exceed a hundred thousand. When a German comic mocked Erdogan, the crazy Turk demanded retribution under a German law that prohibits “offending foreign heads of state or members of government.”380 The Germans complied,381 which immediately triggered a retaliatory “Erdogan Offensive Poetry Competition.”382

What is Erdogan’s leverage? Millions of Syrian refugees are camped at the Turkish border waiting for Erdogan to open the floodgates. He reiterated his threat in late November. He has the cowbell.

I suspect you can’t understand the U.S./Iran nuke deal without top security clearance. The White House got caught airlifting $1.7 billion—pallets of cold cash—to ensure the deal went through.383 They also got caught hitting the Buy-Now button on a couple of captives for $400 million (free shipping)—enough to ensure that more captives will

– Peak Prosperity –

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